President Donald J. Trump has ordered the U.S. military to withdraw about 50 special operators from an area in Syria that may be an avenue for a Turkish incursion into the country.
The president addressed the move during a meeting with DOD leaders at the White House last night. He spoke to reporters following the meeting.
"We've been in Syria for a long time, and it was supposed to be a very short hit … on ISIS," he said. "It didn't work out that way. They never left, and they've been there for many, many years. … We were down to very few soldiers in Syria. We had 50 in the region, … and they've been already moved out."
Turkish President Recep Erdogan has threatened an incursion into Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria for months. He says the area shelters Kurds who have launched attacks into his country. The Defeat-ISIS coalition has been allied with Syrian Democratic Forces, and those indigenous forces were the hammer that ended the physical ISIS caliphate.
The SDF is about evenly split between Arabs and Kurdish forces. SDF officials said there are about 36,000 in the group.
Trump said he advised Erdogan to "treat everybody with great respect."
Turkey appears to be set on undertaking an operation in Northern Syria, administration officials said, speaking on background. The United States has worked hard to dissuade Turkey from such an action for the last two years.
"The president has made it very clear, publicly and privately, that the United States does not endorse or support any Turkish operation in Northern Syria," an official said. "There will be no U.S. armed forces involvement or support of any operation that the Turks undertake. We also made it clear that if Turkey undertakes such an operation, that U.S. troops cannot be put into any danger."
The United States has made it clear to the Turks that they will be responsible for ensuring that ISIS fighters held by the SDF do not escape. The Turks have also been warned that if their incursion causes "any sort of a reconstitution of ISIS or any sort of ISIS activity in the zone of operations, that the Turks would bear full responsibility for dealing with that," an official said.
Finally, U.S. officials have made it plain that Turkey "would bear full responsibility for any humanitarian issues or injuries to the civilians in the region, and ... as a military power engaged in offensive activities, would need to make sure that they did everything they could to protect the local populations," an official said.